The Message: Treated Like So Much Human Debris

The terrible truth is that there is nothing surprising about the revelations emerging about the treatment of young women and their children in mother and baby homes.

I was looking forward to writing about the World Cup this issue. Farcical levels of corruption be-damned! I had been playing with the notion of a suitably sunny, upbeat summer piece about the fiesta of football that kicks off the day this issue of Hot Press hits the streets. It is, literally, the greatest show on earth. Lindo maravilhoso. É boa pra caramba! Or words to that effect.

Running for a month, the World Cup will be packed with real life drama, moments of genius, extraordinary feats of athleticism, refereeing errors of calamitous proportions, reputations going up in flames, the occasional temporary descent into madness among the players – and lots more besides. All human life will be there. Except women on the pitch. But never mind. This is the one situation where the segregation of the sexes probably makes sense. Although come to think of it, if any woman was good enough, and wanted to play, I’d have her in there in a heartbeat – if FIFA would let me...

It is a huge global event, in which Ireland is not involved. In some ways, that will make it all far easier to digest – and more reliably pleasurable in the anticipation. We are not in danger of reliving the cataclysmic, gut-wrenching dismemberment of our hopes and dreams that made Euro 2012 such an unforgettable experience – for all the wrong reasons. No, this will be all about the sheer pleasure of watching the best players in the world – except Paul Green, who won’t be there – go head to head in fearless combat for football’s greatest prize. It is indeed a dizzying prospect...

That was what I wanted to rabbit on about here – and, for a change, to have a bit of fun in the process. 

Then, the news stories about mass graves in a so-called Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, started to appear in newspapers last week. There were accusations of bodies being dumped in a septic tank. And no matter how well equipped you might think you are to deal with this stuff by now, after all of the revelations of the appalling culture of cruelty, violence and abuse of children that reigned here, the sheer horror of the way Ireland was back then rises again to the surface like an acute case of bile. And our hearts are burned one more time by fresh evidence of the sickening, everyday callousness and brutality of what was done to innocent children – and to the unfortunate young women who brought them bawling into the world.

I have to say this: it is deeply shocking. But I am not surprised by what we are hearing. 

I am not surprised at the fact that the mortality rate in these squalid, Church-run institutions was so extraordinarily, criminally high: in the case of Bessborough in Cork, over 50% of the kids dying in one year. I am not surprised that the babies were in effect snatched from the mothers and parcelled up and sent off for adoption in America. Nor that the women – many of them teenage girls – were kept in the dark about the fact that their babies had died. Nor that they were lied to blatantly and shamelessly if they tried to find out where the children that had spent nine months in their wombs had disappeared to. Nor that hospital forms were filled in deliberately misrepresenting the mothers as not being interested or not caring.

I am not surprised either by the fact that the children were used as guinea pigs to test vaccines in a number of mother and baby homes, some of them, by their own testimony, looking like well-worn pin cushions as a result. Nor that the young mothers were denied pain killers during birth and that they were not, as a matter of policy, in certain locations at least, stitched up afterwards to repair the tearing of the vagina that often occurs in first births in particular. Nor that antibiotics were refused if the mothers developed abscesses in their breasts as they fed their babies. The pain was a punishment for the sins the girls had committed. The pain was what they deserved. That was the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.

I am not surprised either that money changed hands, when the children were shipped to America – money that would enable the religious orders responsible to carry on their wonderful missionary work of imprisoning young women and stealing their children. 

I am not surprised that the children were deemed of so little value, and of so little consequence, that many of them were casually allowed to die – and that those that did were, in biblical terms, cast aside like so much human debris in unmarked, communal graves.  

A certain kind of revisionism has been gaining a foothold in recent years in Ireland. The idea is advanced that somehow things have got worse here. That we have lost important, maybe even core, values that we once held dear. That people are alienated now in a way that they were not in the past. That modern media have had a malign influence and that there is less love, less care, less goodness in this little corner of the world.

All of this is utterly wrong. There are many ills in Irish society right now. There are broken things that badly need to be fixed. People, especially those in positions of power, do not show enough compassion. Inequalities have been institutionalised in a way that reflects very badly on those entrusted with steering the ship. All of this is true – and more. But compared to how it was even when I was growing up, this place now is almost like a paradise. 

I will explain in the simplest possible terms what the difference is. Back then, children went to school not knowing how badly they – or their classmates – would be beaten, as a matter of routine, every day, in schools all over Ireland. It varied from institution to institution in its severity, but the regime was brutally authoritarian. Children were whacked, bullied, shouted at, ordered around and, if they were unlucky enough, they were molested by the priests, the brothers, the football managers, the swimming instructors or any of a legion of other predators – who got away with the abuse, because they knew that fear dominated children’s experience of the world; and they also knew that they had on their side the weight of authority and religion, and the grotesque and insidious working assumption that children should shut up and do what they were told.

The campaign to end corporal punishment changed Ireland absolutely. And everything that we now know about abuse emerged into the saving light of day, as a result of the fundamentally decent, ordinary sense of humanity which drove that secular campaign. You should not bully, hit, badger or brutalise children. It is glaringly obvious. And yet doing so was supported by the highest authorities of Church and State. 

Where the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, there was another factor. There is, at the heart of Catholicism, a profound hatred of women. None of the blandishments offered by representatives of the Church can alter this central truth. Other religions are guilty of this too – but from the Pope down, the Catholic Church is a totally patriarchal institution, which excludes women and treats them as intrinsically inferior. They are deemed incapable of being priests and of carrying out any of the essential rituals and functions that these men in frocks monopolise. I do not know, and honestly cannot understand, how women live with it and accept it and remain part of an institution that so blatantly and completely discriminates against them.

That essentially hostile view of women is at the heart of an equally profound fear and hatred of sex and sexuality. Historically, the obsession among the clergy with sex as an occasion of sin was twisted in the extreme. The list of things that you couldn’t or shouldn’t do was long. The only thing that wasn’t a sin was getting married and having sex without the benefits of contraception. And if you did stray from the straight and narrow, then the prevailing view of the barnstorming preachers and of the whispering priests in the confessional alike was that you deserved the shame and the guilt, which was designed to haunt and torment anyone who became pregnant outside wedlock.

The children of the girls in the Mother and Baby homes were illegitimate. Bastards. 

That is how they were defined. And that is how they were treated: as if they were responsible for whatever the perceived wrong was, when in truth no wrong of any kind had been committed – except perhaps by some of the men, who buggered off and left the pregnant girls to fend for themselves. Society was to blame too. Of course it was. But the culture of contempt was inspired by the tenets and the dogma of the Church itself – and in a country that was 97% Roman Catholic, it permeated every stratum of the government and the administration, as the Knights of Columbanus and Opus Dei did their work of ensuring that the Vatican writ ran across the entire framework of social, cultural, educational and health policy in Ireland.   

Even as a kid of thirteen or fourteen, in my heart I realised that all of this was deeply wrong. As a mere boy I sensed that the edifice was rotten, and that the only way forward was to end the poisonous influence of the religion that had been foisted on us. It has been a long road since, but what the Church as an organisation and an institution – and indeed as a way of looking at the world – did to all of us is emerging piece by piece into the bright light of a different dawn.

I am not surprised at all. I am, however, optimistic that a better future lies ahead. But first, those who suffered in the Mother and Baby homes are entitled to hear the full truth. The decision as to who should chair an Inquiry is crucial. There is no room here for a soft appointment. The real truth must finally be revealed...


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